Thursday, June 23, 2011
“DARK CLOUDS RISING: A MARINE’S LIFE DURING THE PERSIAN GULF WAR”: An interview with USMC Veteran (and Leatherman!) Ernest L. Johnson III
USMC veteran Ernest L. Johnson III has just released a new book entitled “Dark Clouds Rising: A Marine’s Life During the Persian Gulf War”. The Persian Gulf War ended in 1991. Since that era, a lot has changed-- both within the world of the military as well as within American and world culture at large. It may be hard to imagine life before the I-Pod, GPS, cellphones, or DVD’s (Remember beepers, foldout maps, and creaky VHS tapes?). But despite the technology over the past two decades, some things have not changed. One of them is the unyielding dedication, strength, and sacrifice of the men and women who serve in our military. Another is the much-appreciated and necessary boost in spirit that our soldiers get when they receive a letter or package from family or friends. While the Internet has become the primary method of communication in our day and age, many servicemen and servicewomen have confirmed that nothing can replace that physical letter or package from a loved one. Johnson reminds us of that in the Preface of his book: “It has been 20 years since the Persian Gulf War. Much has changed in the way we communicate. You will see a common thread of ‘Mail Call‘ throughout my six years. Mail was the one common morale-boosting thing any military member could get. I cannot stress enough the importance of communication with your loved ones who are serving in the Military.”
Johnson’s book is a collection of the soldier’s letters which he sent to his mother during his military service, from his entry into boot camp in 1986 as a teenager, to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. His mother kept the letters, and the resultant compilation is a story which is alternating fascinating, educational, and revealing. Anyone who remembers reading about The Gulf War in the newspapers or watching coverage on TV (Historically, The Gulf War was the first war in which we were able to see live news on the front lines of the fight.) will soon learn that the images we got to see actually revealed very little about the daily lives of the Americans who served. An example is Johnson’s trying day-to-day assignment in Saudi Arabia. During that period, Johnson almost consistently prefaces his journal entries with “Still here in the Saudi Arabian heat”. Today, the author lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and is very active with the universal Leather community; he owns the title of Mr. 501 Eagle 2010 and is a member of Mama's Family. Johnson spoke with Jed Ryan about his new book and his perspectives on the War 20 years after serving:
JR: Hello, Ernie. Thanks for speaking with me! It was clear that a lot of the letters were written to your mother, but some of them did not specify who they were written to. Was there a specific person who you had the most correspondence with during your service?
EJ: With the exception of a few letters noted, all the “Letter Home” was to my mom. Some of the special cases would be if I had asked her to mail something to a friend of mine who I did not have an address for and she copied them. She copied all my letters home and kept the originals as well.
JR: How challenging was it to see this project go from a bunch of letters to a bound book? What was the hardest part?
EJ: The biggest challenge was deciphering my own handwriting. (Laughs) No, really... the challenge was mostly in the actual doing of the act. Thinking that my voice was insignificant and no one would be interested in my story. Overcoming that was the biggest challenge. I had all these letters but it wasn’t until I read a book on the Pullman Porters that I realized that the individual stories of something greater often have the most significance to the event. Realizing this, I sat down and began the journal.
JR: When I first started reading your memoirs, the most predominant feeling that came through in the beginning was loneliness: even though you are in a crowded barracks with many other guys and there‘s no privacy, you still feel isolated because you’re pulled from your family, friends, and home. What was your coping mechanism for getting through that?
EJ: Boot camp was a big shock. I had a couple of Uncles who were Viet Nam Era Vets and had been through Marine Corps Boot Camp and told me that the physical challenge was by far the easiest and that the mental challenge would be the most difficult to overcome. We started off as 100+ individuals and the Drill Instructor’s job was to form us into an elite unit capable of working together and depending upon each other. We had friendships, but mostly it was survival and learning to rely on each other. Letters home were my coping mechanism, and my journal. I was able to put down my thoughts to process them at a later date so I would not be caught up in them from day to day. It was funny going through some of the entries and reading something that I had completely forgotten about, but other things I remember clearly and there wasn’t so much as a single paragraph about an event. Through the years, after boot camp, our units were always in flux, we had people getting out, the “Short Timers”, and the “Boots” those just getting to a Fleet (permanent) Unit. These are the Brothers we worked with, played with, partied with, etc. We would be there for each other to keep us focused on who we were.
JR: Wow! Now, many military researchers have spoken about the new weapons (bigger, louder, and more destructive) that are used in combat since the Persian Gulf… and subsequently, they have warned us about the effects on our soldiers: specifically, the impact on the brain. Many soldiers are coming home with a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that some called “blast injury”… from repeated exposure to deafening noises. More and more soldiers are surviving, but some are left suffering the long-term effects of severe brain damage… which some have called “the invisible wound”. But to add insult to injury, many soldiers have reported that they get less than satisfactory follow-up health care when they leave the military. Do you have any thoughts on that?
EJ: For my time in the Marine Corps, I’ve not heard of this phenomenon, so I can’t speak to this situation.
JR: How long after leaving the Marines did you decide to come out?
EJ: I left the Marine Corps when I was 24 after six years of service with an Honorable Discharge. Though I knew I was gay when I was in the Marine Corps, it was before DADT and I could have easily been discharged for even the slightest homosexual act. When I went in, I went in with the purpose of serving my country as best as I could and to do so honorably. I may have had thoughts about having sex but I did not wish to disgrace the Marine Corps and bring shame to the uniform I chose to wear. It was tough, and in hind sight, I kind of wonder how many other Marines might have been in the same situation. It wasn’t until I was 28 when I finally came out. I had worked in a Copper Mine in Arizona and it was very conservative and I was still in my unsure of the reaction I would receive from my fellow coworkers and friends. It wasn’t until I went back to college where I was able to explore myself through my writings and creating a solid group of friends who would accept me no matter who I was. I did lose some old Marine Corps friends, mostly those who had been indoctrinated by the religious right, but that would be expected.
JR: The military has always been a fertile source for lots of homoerotic fantasies for a lot of guys, I’m sure… But in reality (and not to blow anyone’s fantasies!), life in the military is far from sexy… especially for a Midwestern teenager who is just setting foot into the outside world. How do you respond when people perceive the life of a soldier in terms of a gay porn fantasy?
EJ: Hmmm, well I will say, serving in the Marine Corps did lend itself to what a lot of the fantasies would lead to. After all we are typically at the peak of physical condition, shower together, rough house together, all scenes which would lead from a homo-social to homo-erotic level. We were young men, bravado was our middle name and confidence in ourselves came from every pore of our body. Sure seeing a bunch of sweaty Marines digging a foxhole or stringing a barbed wire fence in the remote jungles of South East Asia would be hot by any stretch of the imagination, however in those situations, we’re often thinking “Why did I get put on this shit detail?”, or thinking, “As soon as we’re done breaking camp, we can get the hell out of here and get some liberty.” So the day-to- day work routine of “Up in the morning with the rising sun, gonna run all day till the runnin’s done” is plenty of shower material for those looking in. On the inside, “Oh, he’s not going for another loop again is he?” (Laughs). Back in the barracks after a run, it’s who can get to the shower fast enough so we can shower and get to the chow hall for breakfast before we go to work.
JR: Gotcha! So, what’s the most important thing every one of us can do, on a day to day basis, to support our servicemen and servicewomen-- especially our GLBT brothers and sisters?
EJ: Write letters. Send them correspondence. It doesn’t have to be over the top, “you’re the greatest” every letter, but simply letting them know you care for them, are praying for them, and write about stuff going on back home. Sure you can ask what a day is like, but after reading my journal, you probably got a feel for “Yep, still here in the Saudi Arabia Desert”, same old boring routine, got up, went on radio watch, went on guard, got food. Talk about things you do so in that letter as our Soldiers are reading they can for a brief moment in time be in your shoes 10,000 miles away living your weekend and not the routine that we experience. I remember one “letter” from some friends who had recorded a tape and you could hear the water splashing in the background as it was a favorite place we would go, half way through they made a comment that “well for all you know, we could be sitting in the bathroom splashing water in the tub and it would sound the same.” That made my day. A song that to this day will cause me to well up and cry is sung by John Michael Montgomery, “Letters Home”, even thinking about it now and the message it has is bringing tears to my eyes. So, I need a second to compose myself...
JR: I understand! Now, as a bona fide expert on life in the military, we want to know: The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” promises to really change the destiny of many GLBT American military men and women. What is the most important thing that our leaders and we as citizens need to do to make for a smooth transition?
EJ: Education and acceptance. In the Marines, I never cared not really thought of a brother as African, Hispanic, Asian, we all wore green, we all bled red, we are all human, we all have different backgrounds. I would never have not done something for someone simply because they were different in some way. We are Marines first and foremost with a job to do. I think that explaining things as conversational as possible goes a long way. If you, in any way feel, inferior for anything, others will take advantage of that weakness and bully you. Be proud of who you are, accept who you are and do not let anybody take that away from you.
JR: Amen! So… Many men and women enter the military before they even turn 20. But as someone who has long since passed that age (ahem!), I am dying to know, do you think someone in their 30’s or early 40’s would be able to enlist and survive boot camp and the subsequent service, physically and/or mentally?
EJ: It is my understanding that you cannot enlist after a certain age, I forget exactly what the age is, but the physical challenge for someone in their 30’s or 40’s would be difficult, though I have seen many men and women in their 30’s and 40’s who could do just fine. However, the mental challenge, in my opinion would be more difficult as by those ages you already have settled in to who you are and having that Boot Camp mentality of someone screaming at you calling you low life scum suckers who couldn’t empty a boot full of piss if the directions were written on the bottom, would be difficult. (Laughs)
JR: In one of your entries, you state about the upcoming Marine Corps Ball: “This is going to be great, a bunch of ‘Jarheads’ in cammies with their dates and dancing in combat boots. I will look back on this someday and laugh.” Are we looking back and laughing yet?
EJ: Oh goodness, that time in the Philippines was a mix of emotions, to say the least. We were told so many times that the uniform was changing it was a running joke. During that time, I wasn’t much of a club goer or dancer but would go out and picturing a bunch of us in this situation bouncing around in combat boots and camouflage utilities was funny. I still laugh at that image.
JR: Now for the question I always ask: What are some of your tips for health and fitness?
EJ: Do what works for you. As I age, I find it harder to keep the extra pounds off. When I was preparing to compete for IML in 2010 I limited my intake, but not limit the things I liked. Staying active, and doing exercises you enjoy is good, just getting out there and walking, hiking, etc. If you like the gym, do that, if you like yard work, get a push mower. When I want to lose weight and gain muscle tone, I’ll order a dish and a to go container right away and put half of it away for “lunch tomorrow”.
JR: Thanks, Ernie! Now, one last question: Where can people buy the book?
EJ: The book can currently be found on the publisher’s website site
www.lulu.com as well as www.amazon.com. It is also available electronically for Kindle and other readers. You can search my name or the title. I will typically have several copies with me at events I attend throughout the year for those who want a signed copy. I will be at the Great Lakes Leather Alliance in Indianapolis, IN in August, so if folks are in the area and attending, I’ll see you there.
JR: I smell a roadtrip a-comin'!
WHEN IT COMES TO HIV, THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE. Justin B. Terry Smith Speaks About His New Children’s Book “I Have a Secret”.
When it comes to HIV, the truth will often set you free… and when it comes to HIV/AIDS activism and awareness, the world needs more individuals like Justin B. Terry-Smith. The charming and smart 31-year old has been involved in gay activism since 1999. A U.S. Air Force Veteran, Smith lives in Laurel, Maryland with his husband Phillip. Through the years, he has worked with and for such GLBT organizations as the National Black Justice Coalition, Human Rights Campaign, Equality Maryland, Us Helping Us, People Into Living Incorporated, and others. He is very active and visible in the universal Leather community, owning the Title of Mr. Maryland Leather 2010. Smith has recently written a new book entitled “I Have a Secret”, which tells the affecting story about an HIV-positive boy who opens up about his status to his friend. It’s a children’s book that adults can appreciate as well. Smith says of his book, “I wrote a children's book. The book is for children, but anyone can relate to it. There is nothing harder for a child then keeping a secret. In this heartwarming tale, a young boy is forced to keep a secret from his friends and schoolmates. The need to tell someone-- anyone-- becomes so great that he almost loses his best friend. Finally, after talking to someone, he is given the chance to share his secret. His life is forever changed, as are those around him. This book does have to do with HIV/AIDS, and it should be used to educate.” Using his own personal life and experiences to educate others (Justin himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1996.), the activist has been interviewed and profiled by print magazines, websites, and radio shows. He also produces his own online video blog, “Justin’s HIV Journal“, where his entries offer the reader a mixture of personal stories, news, and clinical facts. Some of his entries include “Magic Johnson Still Has HIV" and “HIV Denialists and Dissidents“. The tireless activist spoke with me about his new book and his work with HIV/AIDS awareness:
JR: Hi, Justin! Congratulations on the release of the book. So, what made you decide to write a children’s book?
JS: Thank you, Jed. I decided to write a children’s book because I love children. This may sound clichéd, but children are the future (Laughs). I figure that we need to start HIV education early. We need to do this so that when these children grow up, they do not forget that HIV is alive and can affect and infect us all: Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, old, and young. They also need to know that children with HIV are just like children without HIV. They want all the things that children who are HIV-negative want: to play, run, jump, and grow up like a child without HIV wants to.
JR: What was the biggest challenge in seeing “I Have a Secret“ come to life-- to go from an idea to a finalized project?
JS: I honestly I had it easy with “I Have a Secret“. I was on the train coming from IML (International Mr. Leather) in 2010-- the year I ran for IML with my husband-- and we ran into another couple from IML. Thomas Rosengren was one of the twosome that I met. We had a great conversation on the train about writing. He mentioned that he wrote children’s books, and I had mentioned that I wanted to write a children’s book about HIV/AIDS. He gave me his card and that was it. After 4 months of writing up a manuscript, I submitted it to Creative House International Press in Austin, Texas. I was quickly approved by their committee. Then they had to find an illustrator… and they found Jay Youngblood, who is an excellent illustrator. After months of tweaking, I was published in April 2011.
JR: Wow! So, how has the reaction been so far?
JS: The reaction has been great so far. My family and friends have bought the book and always have supported me in my endeavors for HIV/AIDS education. I was surprised that both “The Washington Blade” and “Metro Weekly”, two major newspapers in the Washington, DC area, posted stories about the book. The book is being bought to different libraries and has made it to South Africa via my brother and friend Jaco Lourens.
JR: That’s terrific. Now, you may remember that back in 2002, Sesame Workshop announced that an HIV-positive character, Kami, would be introduced to “Takalani Sesame“, the South African version of the show “Sesame Street“. This idea was considered important for an area where AIDS was been particularly rampant. The HIV+ character's name, Kami, is derived from “Kamogelo“, which means “acceptance” or “welcome” in Setswana. When it was speculated that there would be an American version of the character for American TV, some right-wing politicians vigorously opposed the idea… which of course defeated the whole purpose of the character helping to decrease stigma. Some people get very touchy when approaching this subject with children. Have we made progresses since 2002 in this department?
JS: I do remember Kami from “Takakani Sesame“. When I first saw that they were going to have a puppet that has HIV, I thought “Wonderful! Thank you so much. This is exactly how we can get through to children about HIV/AIDS. What a great idea to decrease HIV stigma. This would definitely stay in the minds of children for their lifetime.” When I saw that right-wing politicians opposed the idea of an American version I thought, “No wonder!” People who do not open their minds to the benefits of something different to educate and even open the minds of children and adults are ignorant. I’ve run into a lot of people who don’t quite understand what we as HIV/AIDS- infected people have to go through. It amazes me that their “morals and ethics” tell them that this is not a good idea; these are the same “morals and ethics” that bring them into sex scandals and financial woes. Kami is a symbol for people to look up and relate to. People who do not understand that need to open their eyes to the fact that we are dying of HIV/AIDS… and that we need to protect our future. Not just in America, but the world.
JR: Who is, in your opinion, are some unsung heroes in the fight against HIV and AIDS… besides yourself, of course?!
JS: WOW ! Honestly, I can think of so many. But I will only name a few. Christopher Barnhill is a young man that lives near me in the DC area. He was born with HIV and continues to education others. He work for Metro Teen AIDS which does a lot of good work with the youth here in the DC area. Robert Breining is another. He created POZIAM Radio in which he educates by interviewing people like himself that are HIV-positive. He also interviews advocates and activist who are against HIV stigma. Another is Chandler Bearden, Mr. ATL Eagle 2010, who has always been a great brother to talk to when I'm down and does so much work for his organization M.I.S.T.E.R in Atlanta, GA. My brothers Rik Newton Treadway, Mr. Maryland Leather 2009; and Alex Lemaire, Mr. Maryland Leather 2011, are two amazing men. Rik has become a great producer of a leather weekend called Chesapeake Leather Awareness Pride, better known as CLAP. Alex has raised a lot of money for SPEAK (Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids), and he has done a phenomenal job as this years Mr. Maryland Leather.
JR: I agree! Now, what‘s the biggest challenge that HIV+ people face on a daily basis? Specifically, what’s the biggest challenge for children living with HIV?
JS: In my opinion, the biggest challenge on a daily basis depends on how comfortable you are with having HIV. Let me explain: There are people are newly infected whose biggest problem is the thought of dying. There are some people who have had the disease where it is not on their minds at all because they have become so routine in knowing how to take care of themselves. It becomes second nature to them. I think the biggest challenge to a lot of us is waiting (and waiting…) on a cure. For children, I think it maybe it’s acceptance, because they want to be accepted by their peers. I think all of us can remember as children that all we wanted to be was accepted for who we are. For HIV-positive children, I think we can say the same: being accepted for who they are and not being ostracized for what they have. Also, remembering to take meds if you’re on them can become challenging to some. I know that I personally had no routine in taking my meds for a long time, but now with the help of my husband I’m able to remember when I need to take them at the same time everyday.
JR: Lately in the news, there have been some talk about advances: a vaccine, taking medication prophylactically to prevent infection, and new forms of barriers for safer sex that are more appealing than condoms. How do you feel about these new advances?
JS: Let me say this: The prophylactic you might be taking about is the Truvada pill, which I am currently on. This does NOT prevent HIV infection. It ONLY lowers the chance of being infected. This should not be an excuse to not use condoms. People need to know that there is a chance you can catch Gonorrhea, Hepatitis or Syphilis. These diseases are NOT stopped by the Truvada pill.
JR: Have you ever gotten a negative reaction from people with regard to your HIV/AIDS activism or your openness about your status?
JS: OHHH YEAH….. You know, I’ve been really nice to people, but I do hear a lot of things that are said about me, and sometimes it hurts… but you have to let it roll off your back and keep it moving. I get comments on my Youtube channel and e-mails calling me a faggot and that I deserve to be infected with HIV. The very first comment I got was, “So you got poked with a dirty dick, so what?” There are a lot of negative people out there, even in the gay community itself. I choose not to affiliate or associate myself with tem. I know I have my own challenges and my own burdens to bear, like HIV and sometimes alcoholism… but those are mine to bear. I chose not to be negative about it.
JR: That‘s a healthy attitude. It‘s good advice for ALL of us! Now, let’s say that someone just finds out today that they test positive for HIV. What’s the first thing you’d want to tell them?
JS: GO SEE A DOCTOR! I get this question a lot, but the only thing I can recommend is to go see a doctor-- but go see one that you feel you can be upfront and honest with. Get a doctor that you can trust and you feel comfortable with. You need to find out your T-Cell counts, viral load, and to see if you test positive for anything else besides HIV. Sometimes STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) come in packs. A lot of people that are diagnosed with HIV do not see a doctor and they go on like nothing is wrong with them health wise. I grew up with 5 friends in the gay lifestyle and now there are only three of us left. The other two denied HIV existed, and by the time they were in the hospital it was too late.
JR: That’s a shame. But we are lucky that there are dedicated individuals like yourself that work to fight HIV. Thanks so much, Justin! Now, where can we go to buy the book?!
JS: Hey Jed, its always a pleasure. You can buy the book online at www.CreativeHousePress.com. The book will also be available on Amazon.com soon. Also, let me mention that there is a sale going on right now:Since it is Creative House Press’ 5 year Anniversary, they are having a sale through July 4th. All books are at 25% retail price plus flat rate shipping in the USA for $6.00. The Coupon Code is “5years”.
JR: Thanks again for speaking with me, Justin. Happy Pride!
You can see Justin’s blog at www.JustinsHIVJournal.blogspot.com. You can also visit Justin on Facebook at www.facebook.com/JustinBSmith